As a member of the AFL-CIO, the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) union is part of the largest federation of unions in the United States. The two unions came together in 2012, bringing more than 160,000 members together under one umbrella.
Although SAG’s membership is filled with feature film actors, actresses, and background performers, the members of AFTRA are more varied. The Federation included television actors, TV and radio announcers, broadcast journalists, dancers, news writers and editors, program hosts, and even puppeteers.
Recording artists, disc jockeys, voiceover artists, narrators, and stunt performers fill out the AFTRA ranks. Although the SAG-AFTRA is headquartered in Los Angeles, New York is another national office with several regional offices located throughout the United States.
Individually, the two unions were formed in the 1930s as the country began to rebuild itself after/during the Great Depression. Not surprisingly, SAG came together to protest harsh working conditions mandated by the major studios at the time. Actors felt they didn’t get a fair shake in the “Studio System,” bound to one studio at a time.
Screen Actors Guild
The biggest stars during the Golden Age of Hollywood all belonged to one studio or another. Clark Gable, once known as “The King of Hollywood,” was exclusive to MGM for more than 20 years. It’s hard to imagine Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson only making movies for Disney. Or Scarlett Johansson only starring in Universal films.
Major stars refused to join SAG at first, either for fear of losing their cushy contracts or not wanting to be associated with a union. During this time, unions across the nation had lost about two million members overall. Once the threat of a real union died down, studios went back to the old way of doing business.
More of the same spurred a union revival. The union grew from 80 to 4,000 members and gradually began to represent all actors. Early SAG members included Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, and Bela Lugosi. In 1937, movie producers and studios were forced to start negotiating with actors in good faith.
SAG was exclusively for actors in feature films. The Guild sought to gain equitable compensation, working conditions, and benefits for their members as well as protect the rights of recorded performances of their members. A-listers and extras alike both had access to the guild, which was once led by former President of the United States Ronald Reagan.
American Federation of Television and Radio Artists
Conversely, the AFTRA union came together much faster. First known as AFRA, the federation joined with the Radio Actors Guild and Radio Equity to represent radio and television personalities, news people, singers, and any other entertainer who appears on radio.
In just four months, the union had more than 2,000 members. Soon after, AFRA negotiated the first collectively bargained national contract with NBC and CBS studios. The average wage increased by 125% and two years later the federation covered more than 70% of radio performers around the country.
In 1952, the Television Authority merged with the AFRA to create AFTRA. At this point, the group had nearly 10,000 members across radio and television entertainment, either in front of the camera or behind the mic. A few of the major deals that were negotiated included royalties from the rebroadcast of television shows and TV commercial contracts.
At this point, SAG and AFTRA were often found fighting side by side for their memberships. In 1974 the two groups negotiated contracts for dramatic primetime broadcasts across all networks. Four years later, the unions combined again to strike against advertising agencies and national advertisers over commercial contracts.
When videotape and VCR use exploded in the early 80s, SAG and AFTRA once again came together. This time, it was to strike for revenue made from the sales of videotapes and pay-TV, such as HBO or Showtime. It was then that SAG and AFTRA laid the groundwork for a “Phase 1 Agreement.” This called for the two memberships to negotiate contracts jointly.
As cable and digital entertainment began to grow in the 1990s and 2000s, AFTRA continually fought for proper shares of the profits from this new medium. Although SAG joined a six-month strike in early 2000 over basic cable residuals, they voted down a merger in 2003.
It took nine more years, and more merged negotiations, before the SAG-AFTRA union was formed. There were some disagreements over how the final vote count was verified and how to unite the two pension funds. Still, the merger made for a larger, stronger union with more bargaining power.